“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
If that lede was good enough for Jane Austen, it’s good enough for me. And it was good enough for Annie in her literature class on Friday afternoon.
I met Annie by chance a couple of weeks ago when I arrived early for my Wednesday afternoon class. The previous class was just letting out. “Hi, Diane!” some of my sophomores called as they raced down the hall. It was a little disorienting: shouldn’t they be arriving rather than leaving? But then I realized that was another class of sophomores. (I have four.) I opened the door, and there, packing her bag, was Annie.
Other than the man called in to help locate listening exercises on a lab computer and two women doing doctoral study in New York, Annie is the first Chinese professor I’ve met. The foreign teachers here operate in something of a vacuum. The university looks good because it has us and gets extra money for doing so, but we are essentially window dressing. We teach oral English but know little about what other courses our students are taking, or how they are taught. We have no official contact with the Chinese professors who teach grammar, listening, reading, writing, interpretation and literature. The administration does nothing to encourage it. We’ve speculated about why. Some of us think that, as foreigners, we intimidate them; some think they’re afraid their English isn’t good enough. Some think the reason is resentment over the price differential: we are paid roughly twice what Chinese professors make.
Annie didn’t seem intimidated or resentful, and her English was certainly good enough. She said she had been teaching six or seven years but still had a lot to learn. I asked if I might sit in on one of her literature classes, and she seemed pleased. She was teaching Chaucer that week. I gulped and said I was busy that day, and would come another time.
By this week, thank goodness, she had moved ahead a few centuries to “Pride and Prejudice.” I walked into a large lecture hall with stadium seating, roughly the size and layout of Off Broadway’s Second Stage, minus the decor. Annie was already wrestling with the computer console. (Having a “multimedia classroom” here usually means a DVD might play, if you’re lucky.) Music streamed over the speakers, and I’ve been away so long that it took me a few minutes to recognize it as Beethoven’s Fifth – “Dah dah dah DAAAAH.” Soon Austen’s opening sentence was on the screen, courtesy of PowerPoint.
The students, maybe 40 or so, were assembling. Even though three times the number could have fit in the room, they all huddled together in the center section – to be precise, the back of the center section, since no one wants to run the risk of sitting too close to the teacher. For good reason. “Today we’re going to talk about ‘Pride and Prejudice, “ Annie began. “Are you familiar with it? Have you read it?” Dead silence. Most students here would rather die than volunteer anything – an answer, an opinion, a demonstration – in part, I think, because of the herd mentality. They have none of that show-everyone-else-how-much-smarter-you-are attitude that drives New York. When I ask for a vote on the simplest question, rarely do more than a few hands go up. But if you call on them, they’ll stand (literally) and deliver.
Annie wasn’t ready to get tough yet, so she launched into the basic four-line Austen biography: “Born into a clergyman’s family at Steventon. Educated at home. Never married. Died of bad health.” She ran down the list of Austen’s six major novels, showing not the book covers (which the students were unlikely to recognize) but the movie posters (which they might). She tried to get someone, anyone, to admit to knowing anything about the plot. That’s when she took off the gloves, in her own firm, quiet fashion.
“Have you read the novel? Have you read the first chapter? You were assigned to read it. Who are the main characters? Who is Elizabeth?” She called on one student by number on the class roster, then another, then another., but none could or would answer. “You were assigned to read it,” she repeated. One girl rose and started to speak but then, unable to express her thoughts, switched into Chinese. ”Try to speak English,” Annie urged. The girl sat down; another rose but fared no better with either the characters or the basic plot.
“What is the plot?” Annie hammered. “I assigned you to read it. How many of you have done the homework?” Instead of raising hands, the students looked down into their books in shame.
I smiled as I thought back to my classes that week — unusually energetic because they focused on language for a favorite activity, shopping. (Even my male-techie postgraduates had fun with that one.) This class was making me feel much better — not because I’m a better teacher, but because no one in this one had done the homework, either. Here a Chinese teacher with more experience was feeling the same teeth-pulling frustration that I felt daily.
At the break, Annie came over to say hello and vent. “They have too many classes,” she explained, to which I agreed. “And they’re all majoring in Teaching Chinese to Foreigners, so they don’t think this is important.” Meanwhile, I had borrowed one student’s textbook, a thin paperback titled “Selected Readings in English and American Literature,” and found short excerpts from works of the usual suspects: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Woolf et al. on the British side, Hawthorne, Whitman, Dickinson, Fitzgerald and Frost on the American. I laughed when I saw “To be or not to be,” my proudest achievement with my Polish students. (I make them listen to the speech three times before I let them see a line-by-line Polish translation.)
Annie soldiered on for another 45 minutes, through the Bennet girls’ reasons for marriage to the eventual happy ending. When she asked, “What is your view of marriage?” and called on a particular girl, the whole class dissolved into giggles. I couldn’t help wondering what these students would make of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester if they ever got past the excerpt in their text and made it all the way to “Reader, I married him.”
As the class neared its end, I could hear fatigue setting in to Annie’s English. But I was sure of one thing: she and I would have our revenge. If our students are really going to be teachers, they’ll be facing classes just like themselves someday.